How Organisations Can Counter Wilful Blindness

How Organisations Can Counter Wilful Blindness

by
Margaret Heffernan

Author and former CEO of several multimedia companies

Executives who make organisational blunders may be guilty of turning a blind eye to obvious organisational problems and wilfully ignoring facts when making decisions. HQ Asia sat down for a discussion with author Margaret Heffernan, a former CEO of several multimedia companies, for an examination of the root causes and symptoms of this potentially devastating concept. Heffernan proposes five steps that executives can take to mitigate ‘wilful blindness’.

Decision making is a complex cognitive process that is often tainted by our prejudices and biases. One of the most common pitfalls in this complex process is to deliberately disregard extant facts and make decisions in the absence of otherwise-known information. Over the course of her career, Margaret Heffernan, author and the former CEO of five companies, has observed up close how some of the best executives in the world inadvertently made bad decisions. These decisions were not made due to lack of intelligence, but because the executives deliberately overlooked facts that would have otherwise led to better outcomes. Heffernan terms this behaviour, ‘wilful blindness’.

The concept of deliberately ignoring what is known is not new. In the 19th century, English judicial authorities used the term ‘wilful blindness’ to refer to a person who ‘wilfully shuts their eyes’ to facts that would render him or her liable. Over time, the phenomenon of deliberately turning a blind eye toan otherwise-known fact has been given different labels, such as ‘conscious avoidance’ and ‘deliberate indifference’, and has been applied to a wide array of situations outside the legal realm. Despite the myriad of names, the fundamental principle has always been the same: there are opportunities for knowledge and people with the responsibility to be informed, but such opportunities and responsibilities are shirked by those who are ultimately accountable for the decisions made.

Wilful Blindness: Causes and Solutions

Wilful blindness, argues Heffernan, occurs largely due to how people construct mental models of the world and the inherent biases that they have. While mental models and biases can help us simplify our decision-making processes, they also induce us to make sub-optimal decisions because we become less aware of what we do not know and are less likely to accept facts and information that might run counter to our beliefs. While it may be easy to say, ‘let’s get rid of our mental models and biases’, doing so is not realistic. Getting rid of them would also mean getting rid of the benefits they bestow — akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water.

In Heffernan’s opinion, to lessen the risk of wilful blindness, organisations should construct a balanced portfolio of mental models and biases. This portfolio can be built by putting together a team of people who possess different biases and different mental models. Overcoming the limitations of wilful blindness means having a 360-degree perspective of problems and surrounding yourself with people who have different mental models and biases. These people bring different perspectives and arguments to bear, which allows you to appreciate the limitations of your own mental models and begin to examine the same issues in a different light.

“Executives who hire people who think the same way as they do are going to amplify their wilful blindness,” said Heffernan. “Mitigating wilful blindness is successful only to the degree that executives are willing to hire people who are different from them. Hiring different people brings different biases and different mental models that ultimately lead to better decisions.” Organisations must ensure they do not adopt a cookie-cutter approach to new hires. Similarly, hiring people who are different from each other must go beyond nominal notions of diversity — it should be a form of social policy, where executives carefully calibrate variety into their organisations.

Is your Organisational Culture Breeding Blindness?

While an organisation’s culture is the representation of the collective values, beliefs and principles of the organisation and its members, a strong organisational culture could be a factor in perpetuating wilful blindness. Strong organisational cultures are likely to create an impetus for conformity among employees, which may result in those employees who think and act differently, to not be able to fit into the culture and who may then leave the company. Calibrating variety into an organisation requires its executives to undergo an introspection process to better understand the type of work culture that is pervasive within their company. This process will also seek to uncover specific aspects of that work culture that must be changed in order to foster better decision-making and more holistic perspectives.

Five Steps to Seeing Clearly

Based on her experience from coaching senior executives, Heffernan believes that organisations that wish to curb wilful blindness need to do the following:

1. BALANCE DIVERSITY WITH INCLUSIVENESS AND ENCOURAGE CONSTRUCTIVE DEBATES

The emphasis on cognitive and behavioural diversity must be balanced with an equal emphasis on inclusiveness. Executives must acknowledge that with diversity comes conflicts, and these conflicts must be managed constructively. To encourage constructive conflicts, executives must create a culture of debate and respect for ideas within the organisation.

Employees must feel uninhibited and able to debate with each other about alternative solutions. They must recognise that if someone questions them, those questions help sharpen how they think about a problem. Employees should also be encouraged to view criticism as leading to improvement, and receive criticism as a contribution that their peers are making towards their ideas and suggestions. Through the process of constructive debates and respect for differing ideas, employees will become more aware of their own mental models and biases. Employees will then begin to appreciate the fact that these constructive debates result in much more effective solutions at the end of the process.

2. CREATE A PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE ENVIRONMENT AND A CULTURE OF EXPERIMENTATION

Executives who are keen to mitigate wilful blindness in their organisations must create a psychologically safe and empowering environment, one where employees can freely explore and experiment without it potentially harming their careers. One of the key reasons why viewpoints tend to converge within an organisation is the lack of psychological safety. Employees are not intrinsically motivated to publicly contribute ideas that are counter to what the larger group thinks. More often than not, employees do not speak up because they are worried that they may pay a personal career price for doing so.

This organisational silence is compounded by a lack of empowerment — where employees feel they do not have permission to speak and act independently. Inverting this process involves converting the fear of failure from one that restrains experimenting to being a motivational force that compels employees to explore alternative solutions.

3. CREATE A COLLABORATIVE CULTURE

In Heffernan’s opinion, most contemporary organisations are run based on the ‘manufacturing assumption’. Executives who subscribe to the manufacturing assumption typically believe that having better machines (e.g., employees) would make better widgets (e.g., organisational performance). The struggle that many executives have is in finding the best machine so that the factory (e.g., the organisation) can reach its optimal productivity.

This mindset has led to organisations being dominated by what Heffernan terms ‘super chickens’ that believe the surest way to career progression is to be the meanest chicken and out-compete everyone else in the coop. The main problem with the manufacturing assumption and super chicken mindset is that adherents essentially forget that the workplace is social in nature and emotional connections need to be forged. When employees adopt a super chicken mindset, they are less collaborative, less likely to share information with each other, more likely to operate in silos, and therefore are more likely to get blindsided by their mental models and biases.

While leaders can deliberately build variety into their employee genome pool, it is equally important that they create a collaborative organisational culture that celebrates the synergies that teams create. Heffernan argues that executives need to recognise that more organisational value can be created when employees work in collaborative teams, rather than in perpetual competition with each other. Fostering collaborative environments allows organisations to tap into the collective wisdom of their employees. In turn, employees feel comfortable contributing their knowledge to their teams, because they know that their contributions are being valued.

4. ORGANISATIONAL CULTURE SHOULD ALIGN GOALS, PASSION AND PURPOSE, BUT NOT BEHAVIOURS

Every entrepreneur who has started a venture did so because they have a thriving passion for a particular idea — that passion is the purpose and raison d’être of the business. However, as the organisation grows bigger, that same entrepreneur often forgets what drove him or her to start the business in the first place. It is important for executives to continuously re-examine their organisational values and purpose, and create a system that aligns and reminds employees of those ideals.

To Heffernan, this alignment process should be achieved through corporate culture. Based on her extensive experience consulting for large organisations, Heffernan points out that successful organisations with diverse employee profiles often use corporate culture as the social glue that directs employees toward a common purpose. Having a diverse employee pool within an organisation results in a disparate range of ideas and opinions about how business goals could be reached.

Having an effective mechanism to ensure that employees feel passionate about organisational goals, despite their diverse backgrounds and differences in opinion, becomes exceptionally important. While employees can debate constructively about the ways and alternatives to attain organisational goals, organisations should create a culture where, despite all the differences that might exist among its employees, they continue to care passionately about the organisation’s goals and strive purposefully towards those goals.

5. LEADERS MUST LEAD BY EXAMPLE

The best-designed system can be thwarted by poor implementation, especially where there is poor alignment between espoused values and behaviours. While HR professionals can design a collaborative work environment and carefully engineer a culture of constructive debates, leaders need to send unambiguous signals to employees that the organisation truly values constructive debates and diverse opinions.

Executives must clearly articulate the collaborative culture and values the organisation subscribes to, assure employees that their ideas are respected and they are free to act on those ideas, and most importantly, put themselves forward and be ready to act on constructive criticisms that they might receive. In doing so, the organisation’s leadership sets a clear example that employees can strive to emulate.

Wilful Blindness Can Be Overcome

Case studies have demonstrated that spectacular organisational failures could be avoided if executives chose to pay attention to early warning signs. Being wilfully blind often leads to sub-optimal decisions that may threaten the viability of the organisation. Executives ought to be cognizant about the pervasiveness of wilful blindness in corporations, the conditions that perpetrate it, and the type of strategies that they could put in place to mitigate it. By engaging in practices such as creating a culture of constructive conflict and fostering a collaborative work environment, executives are able to minimise the impact of wilful blindness in their organisations.

This article first appeared in HQ Asia, Issue 9.

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